Why Tell Other People’s Stories?

Sometimes the only way to portray the complexity of everyday (and extraordinary) people is to tell their stories. Of course, telling true narratives when you’re used to writing fiction can be a hell of a struggle. Introverted fiction writers like me draw stories from their heads—they may draw inspiration from real life, but they have free rein when it comes to dialogue and the chain of events.

But as intimidating as it may be to interview multiple people and glean many perspectives for a magazine-style feature, someone has to tell these stories. Features often star celebrities, from Miley Cyrus to college basketball miracle Dewayne Dedmon, but not everyone has an army of PR experts and eager reporters. Not everyone has a voice, however dire their situation. The ones most in need can often be the least heard. That’s why we have to tell their stories.

For example, Rolling Stone recently profiled a once-privileged gay teen, whose struggle with her conservative family left her broke, homeless, and abandoned. It’s a familiar narrative, but one that’s often obscured by more optimistic images of happy gay couples and the issue of marriage equality. “It gets better!” is a common phrase, uttered to prevent LGBT teens from committing suicide. People hate to talk about the consequences of coming out, because LGBT teens often end up like Jackie.

After what felt like an eternity, her mom finally responded. “I don’t know what we could have done for God to have given us a fag as a child,” she said before hanging up.

As soon as the line went dead, Jackie began sobbing. Still, she convinced herself that her parents would come around and accept her, despite what they perceived to be her flaw. As planned, she drove to Canada to celebrate her birthday with friends. When her debit card didn’t work on the second day of the trip, she figured it was because she was in another country. Once back in the States, however, she got a call from her older brother. “He said, ‘Mom and Dad don’t want to talk to you, but I’m supposed to tell you what’s going to happen,'” Jackie recalls. “And he’s like, ‘All your cards are going to be shut off, and Mom and Dad want you to take the car and drop it off at this specific location. Your phone’s going to last for this much longer. They don’t want you coming to the house, and you’re not to contact them. You’re not going to get any money from them. Nothing. And if you don’t return the car, they’re going to report it stolen.’ And I’m just bawling. I hung up on him because I couldn’t handle it.” Her brother was so firm, so matter-of-fact, it was as if they already weren’t family.

The writer who told Jackie’s story couldn’t help her completely, but by drawing national attention to a secret crisis, Alex Morris changed the conversation. And maybe that’s all we can hope to do—whether we write fiction or journalistic prose, the truth will always get out.

[Note: This post was originally published on my first attempt at a blog on September 29, 2014]

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